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Facebook gathers data about the text you delete

We've all had that moment: we write out a message on Facebook, only to think "hold on – is this a good idea?"

You highlight what you wrote. You press delete. But that message might not be as deleted as you think, according to a recent study.

A new research paper written by Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer and Carnegie Mellon PhD student Sauvik Das has revealed how metadata about so-called "self-censored" posts are stored by the social media giant, and contribute to widespread analysis of user behaviour.

The research suggests that Facebook uses a code that records every time a message is written and then deleted, and sends that metadata back to its own databases to be analysed.

The collection of metadata apparently encompasses "aborted status updates, posts on other people's timelines, and comments on others' posts," as well as private messages. Facebook gathers this information using code sent to a user's browser, which records and analyses everything that a user writes.

It's nothing new to find that a web company is recording what users type as they type it. Users of Gmail, for instance, will likely be aware that their messages are periodically saved as drafts, so that in the event of a browser crash or accidental shutdown, the message can be retrieved. Facebook is employing essentially the same methods, but without the user's knowledge, and without their consent.

Both Gmail and Facebook use the content of a user's communications and personal details to target advertising.

Das and Kramer's article closes with the statement: "we have arrived at a better understanding of how and where self-censorship manifests on social media; next, we will need to better understand what and why."

They are interested in this information because when a user chooses not to share something, Facebook "loses value from the lack of content generation."

"Consider, for example, the college student who wants to promote a social event for a special interest group, but does not for fear of spamming his other friends - some of who may, in fact, appreciate his efforts," the researchers write.

On Facebook's Data Use Policy page, the company claims that it collects all of the "information you choose to share when you communicate with us, such as when you contact us using an email address, or when you take an action, such as when you add a friend, like a Page or a website, add a place to your story, use our contact importers, or indicate you are in a relationship."

However, there is no mention of data being collected about information you choose not to share.

While it seems for now that Facebook is not analysing the actual text of its users' deleted messages, some users could feel less confident that other entities that might have had access to Facebook's servers aren't either.

The revelation came just as rival Google has come under widespread criticism from privacy groups for circumventing native security features to gather the data of iPhone, iPad and Mac users.

Image: Flickr (foxtongue)